Forced to Evacuate Ukraine, Nicole Jepeal (CAS’11) Worries about Those Left Behind
Fulbright Fellow, now in Poland, says Ukrainians’ resistance to the invasion is a product of their history
Nicole Jepeal (CAS’11) emailed Bostonia from Poland last week, offering to share her story of being evacuated from her Fulbright Public Policy Fellowship in Kyiv, Ukraine, ahead of the Russian invasion. Anything, she wrote, to help give a human element to what is happening.
“The things you are seeing on the news and on Twitter—that sense of humor, the acts of defiance—are just so uniquely Ukrainian,” Jepeal says by Zoom on Monday from an internet cafe in Warsaw, where she has been staying in an AirBnB, waiting for the crisis to resolve.
“One of the things that has so endeared Ukraine and its people to me is, in the face of all of this, so many of us would just be cowering in fear,” she says. “And the bravery and the commitment they show to building a future they want for their country, their family, their children, is pretty incredible.”
Keep in mind, Jepeal says, that the Ukrainian national, ethnic, and cultural identity has been suppressed brutally for many decades, and the people fought for so long to be able to forge an independent nation. “It is such a deeply held principle for most Ukrainians I know, they hold that sense of pride in their identity because they haven’t been allowed to freely express it for so long,” she says. “To be in a country of pure potential, where everything is moving upwards, is really invigorating and inspiring.”
Jepeal is safe in Warsaw for now, has an American passport and money in the bank, so she is better off than many. But the stress of weeks of dislocation, uncertainty, and worrying about her Ukrainian friends shows in her face and voice.
“I don’t think anyone is good right now,” she says. “I’m not Ukrainian, and I’m not in Ukraine watching my country be bombed and invaded. I left before major fighting broke out, the fighting was not where I was at, I didn’t have to make a run for the border. So what I experienced is only a fraction of what people are experiencing.
“But we’re all worried about friends or family who are in Ukraine, worried about the people we know who are in territorial defense units. I have a lot of friends who are doctors, who are now doing military medicine in war zones. Warsaw is a good city, but I can tell you I haven’t slept more than a three-hour chunk since we learned Putin was signing the order of war. We are all exhausted, worried and fearful for Ukraine and the people that we love.”
Taking her public health skills to Kyiv
Jepeal grew up in Billerica, Mass., and studied biology and anthropology at BU. Postgrad work as an Americorps member got her into the public health field. She went on to earn a master’s in public health from Emory University before landing a job with a nonprofit Medicaid health firm in Oregon, leading a team of 10 working on implementing healthcare reform measures.
Her long-held dream of living abroad while still working in the field came true in 2020 when she was named a Fulbright Public Policy Fellow, earning a stipend while helping Ukraine’s health ministry reform from its old, Soviet-style system to something that more resembles the United Kingdom’s National Health Service. Her posting was delayed repeatedly by concerns about COVID, until she finally got the green light last fall. “I think I quit my job three times before I finally left,” she says.
Jepeal arrived in Ukraine in October in a cohort of a dozen fellows. “My concerns centered around what’s going to happen with the pandemic,” she says. “Ukraine had a very low vaccination rate, and we arrived in the middle of their Delta surge, wondering how that’s going to go. I never in a million years thought I was going to have to leave because of war.”
They began hearing about an escalation in the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia sometime in December. But Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 and subsequent support for rebels in two eastern breakaway regions in the years since made it just background noise for most Ukrainians. “They’ve had a lot of these little moments of escalation, so that for them is pretty routine,” she says.
In mid-January, though, the threat grew more serious, and the local Fulbright team—an American leader and several Ukrainian staffers—told the fellows that they had better be making evacuation plans. “It was pretty disconcerting,” Jepeal says, but the Ukrainian attitude was still pretty blasé: “nothing’s going to happen, we’re fine.”
So she accepted an invitation to join a couple of the other fellows on a weekend trip to Krakow, the weekend of January 22 and 23.
“I remember sitting in a restaurant on Saturday night eating dinner, and we started getting all these notifications and getting messages from family back in the US,” she says. Rumors that the US Embassy in Ukraine was sending families and nonessential staff home turned out to be true. Fulbright was considering its options, which could include an abrupt end to their year in Ukraine. “We would find out our fate on Monday, and we were just sitting there in utter shock.”
They rushed back to Kyiv the next morning, and by Monday were told that they would be evacuated to Poland on Thursday. They booked flights, informed their landlords, and started packing. The Fulbright program provided plane tickets and a few nights in a hotel when they arrived in Warsaw.
Their temporary status in Poland means they can’t rent apartments, only AirBnBs for a limited time. On Monday, Jepeal had to leave one such dwelling and was planning to move in with friends. But they had to suddenly take in their cousins’ two teenage children from Ukraine. The teens’ parents—both doctors—were staying in the country to treat the wounded. So Jepeal wound up crashing with a friend, planning to rent another AirBnB the next day.
While the Fulbright stipend was more than enough to live normally in Ukraine, she says, she and others have dipped into savings to fund their stay in Poland.
Doing what they can to help
Jepeal says she and the other fellows think constantly of those still in Ukraine. “My people are most likely to be doing military medicine rather than joining the fighting, but we have two Fulbright staff who have joined a territorial defense group in Kyiv, so we are all thinking about them every night.”
None of her other Ukrainian friends have left the country. Most have hunkered down in smaller cities or villages where their families are from. “It’s a little bit of a delicate situation to navigate. You don’t want to be constantly pestering people with questions like, How are you? Are you safe? Because people are not OK and they’re not safe, and so we’re really trying to balance checking in on people and making sure they know we’re thinking about them, but not pestering them with questions.”
She and the other fellows have been attending near-daily protests in Warsaw, often starting outside the Russian Embassy. “I live in Portland [Oregon], so it’s in our blood,” she says with a smile. They’ve been helping Ukrainians facing difficult travel and days-long waits at the Polish border, sometimes just by sharing information, other times providing rides and other material help. They help gather and pack relief supplies—clothes, food, batteries—for Ukraine.
“We all feel this intense obligation—I don’t mean in a bad way, I mean it in all the good ways—to do what we can for them,” Jepeal says. “We all made a commitment to Ukraine by coming. This isn’t what we thought our grants would be, but leaving feels like an abandonment, and as long as we can do some good here, I want to stay.”
Nicole Jepeal’s suggestions for where to donate and support:
For folks looking for a reliable news source on the conflict, I highly recommend the Kyiv Independent, a Ukrainian English language newspaper. They also post to Twitter and Telegram for those wanting real-time updates. They have a fantastic war journalist named Illia Ponomarenko (@IAPonomarenko) who posts on Twitter reliably about the conflict.
• If you are comfortable supporting Ukraine’s defense efforts, you can donate directly to the army.
• The Ukrainian NGO Sunflower of Peace helps provide medical supplies in conflict areas.
• A Polish NGO working with refugees at the border is Polish Center for International AID.
• Razom, a Ukrainian-American nonprofit, also has this great link tree for other sources.